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The Character of James F. Reed
Causes Which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
John Snyder's Popularity
The Fatal Altercation
Conflicting Statements of Survivors
A Brave Girl
A Primitive Trial
A Court of Final Resort
Verdict of Banishment
A Sad Separation
George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time
Finding Letters in Split Sticks
Danger of Starvation.
Gravelly ford, on the Humboldt River, witnessed a tragedy which greatly agitated the company. Its results, as will be seen, materially affected the lives not only of the participants, but of several members of the party during the days of horror on the mountains, by bringing relief which would otherwise have been lacking. The parties to the tragedy were James F. Reed and John Snyder. Reed was a man who was tender, generous, heroic, and whose qualities of true nobility shone brilliantly throughout a long life of usefulness. His name is intimately interwoven with the history of the Donner Party, from first to last. Indeed, in the Illinois papers of 1846-7 the company was always termed the "Reed and Donner Party." This title was justly conferred at the time, because he was one of the leading spirits in the organization of the enterprise. In order to understand the tragedy which produced the death of John Snyder, and the circumstances resulting therefrom, the reader must become better acquainted with the character of Mr. Reed.
The following brief extract is from "Powers' Early Settlers of Sangamon County:" "James Frazier Reed was born November 14, 1800, in County Armagh, Ireland. His ancestors were of noble Polish birth, who chose exile rather than submission to the Russian power, and settled in the north of Ireland. The family name was originally Reednoski, but in process of time the Polish termination of the name was dropped, and the family was called Reed. James F. Reed's mother's name was Frazier, whose ancestors belonged to Clan Frazier, of Scottish history. Mrs. Reed and her son, James F., came to America when he was a youth, and settled in Virginia. He remained there until he was twenty, when he left for the lead mines of Illinois, and was engaged in mining until 1831, when he came to Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois."
Among the papers of Mr. Reed is a copy of the muster roll of a company which enlisted in the Blackhawk war, and in this roll are the names of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and James F. Reed. At the termination of this war, Mr. Reed returned to Springfield, engaged in the manufacture of cabinet furniture, and amassed a considerable fortune. He was married in 1835 to Mrs. Margaret Backenstoe, whose maiden name was Keyes. The death of his wife's mother, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, has already been mentioned as occurring on the Big Blue River, near Manhattan, Kansas.
During the progress of the train, Mr. Reed was always a prominent, active member. Full of life and enthusiasm, fearless of danger, he was ready at all times to risk his life for the company's welfare. On the desert, we have seen that his lonely expedition in search of water cost him his valuable oxen, and left him and his family almost destitute.
The deplorable affair about to be narrated was only the natural outgrowth of the trying circumstances in which the company were placed. The reader must bear in mind that many petty causes combined to produce discord and dissension among the members of the Donner Party. Coming from so many different States, being of different nationalities and modes of thought, delayed on the road much longer than was expected, rendered irritable by the difficulties encountered on the journey, annoyed by losses of stock, fearful of unknown disasters on the Sierra, and already placed on short allowances of provisions, the emigrants were decidedly inharmonious.
The action of the company, moreover, was doubtless influenced in a greater or less degree by Snyder's popularity. A young man, not over twenty-three years old, he was tall, straight, and of erect, manly carriage, and his habits of life as a frontiersman had developed him into a muscular, athletic being. He excelled and led in all the out-door sports most in favor with Western men, such as jumping, running, and wrestling. His manner was gentle, retired, and timid to a degree verging on bashfulness, until roused by the influence of passion. The lion in the man was dormant until evoked by the fiercer emotions. His complexion was dark, but as you studied his face you could not repress the suspicion that Nature had marked him for a blonde, and that constant exposure to the wind and sun and rain of the great plains of the West had wrought the color change, and the conviction was strong that the change was an improvement on Nature. His features were cast in a mold of great beauty - such beauty as we seldom look for in a man. He was never moody, despondent, or cast down, and at all times, and under all circumstances, possessed the faculty of amusing himself and entertaining others. In the evening camp, when other amusements failed, or when anticipated troubles depressed the spirits of the travelers, it was his custom to remove the "hindgate" of his wagon, lay it on the ground, and thereon perform the "clog dance," "Irish jigs," the "pigeon wing," and other fantastic steps. Many an evening the Donner Party were prevented from brooding over their troubles by the boyish antics of the light-hearted youth.
As stated above, the train had reached Gravelly Ford. Already the members of the company were beginning to scan eagerly the western plain in hopes of discovering the relief which it was believed Stanton and McCutchen would bring from Sutter's Fort. Of course there were the usual accidents and incidents peculiar to a journey across the plains. Occasionally a wagon would need repairing. Occasionally there would be a brief halt to rest and recruit the jaded cattle. The Indians had stolen two of Mr. Graves' oxen, and a couple of days later had stolen one of the horses.
In traveling, the Donner Party observed this rule: If a wagon drove in the lead one day, it should pass back to the rear on the succeeding day. This system of alternating allowed each his turn in leading the train. On this fifth of October, 1846, F. W. Graves was ahead, Jay Fosdick second, John Snyder third, and the team of J. F. Reed fourth. Milton Elliott was driving Reed's team. Arriving at the foot of a steep, sandy hill, the party was obliged to "double teams," that is, to hitch five or six yoke of oxen to one wagon. Elliott and Snyder interchanged hot words over some difficulty about the oxen. Fosdick had attached his team to Graves' and had drawn Graves' wagon up the hill. Snyder, being nettled at something Elliott had said, declared that his team could pull up alone. During the excitement Snyder made use of very bad language, and was beating his cattle over the head with his whip-stock. One account says that Reed's team and Snyder's became tangled. At all events, Snyder was very much enraged. Reed had been off hunting on horseback, and arriving at this moment, remonstrated with Snyder for beating the cattle, and at the same time offered him the assistance of his team. Snyder refused the proffered aid, and used abusive language toward both Reed and Elliott. Reed attempted to calm the enraged man. Both men were of fiery, passionate dispositions, and words began to multiply rapidly. When Reed saw that trouble was likely to occur, he said something about waiting until they got up the hill and settling this matter afterwards. Snyder evidently construed this to be a threat, and with an oath replied, "We will settle it now." As Snyder uttered these words, he struck Reed a blow on the head with the butt-end of his heavy whip-stock. This blow was followed in rapid succession by a second, and a third. As the third stroke descended, Mrs. Reed ran between her husband and the furious man, hoping to prevent the blow. Each time the whip-stock descended on Reed's head it cut deep gashes. He was blinded with the blood which streamed from his wounds, and dazed and stunned by the terrific force of the blows. He saw the cruel whip-stock uplifted, and knew that his wife was in danger, but had only time to cry "John! John!" when down came the stroke full upon Mrs. Reed's head and shoulders. The next instant John Snyder was staggering, speechless and death-stricken. Reed's hunting-knife had pierced his left breast, severing the first and second ribs and entering the left lung.
No other portion of the History of the Donner Party, as contributed by the survivors, has been so variously stated as this Reed-Snyder affair. Five members of the party, now living, claim to have been eyewitnesses. The version of two of these, Mrs. J. M. Murphy and Mrs. Frank Lewis, is the one here published. In the theory of self-defense they are corroborated by all the early published accounts. This theory was first advanced in Judge J. Quinn Thornton's work in 1849, and has never been disputed publicly until within the last two or three years. Due deference to the valuable assistance rendered by Wm. G. Murphy, of Marysville, and W. C. Graves, of Calistoga, demands mention of the fact that their accounts differ in important respects from the one given above. This is not surprising in view of the thirty-three years which have elapsed since the occurrence. The history of criminal jurisprudence justifies the assertion that eye-witnesses of any fatal difficulty differ materially in regard to important particulars, even when their testimony is taken immediately after the difficulty. It is not strange, therefore, that after the lapse of an ordinary life-time a dozen different versions should have been contributed by the survivors concerning this unfortunate tragedy. James F. Reed, after nearly a quarter of a century of active public life in California, died honored and respected. During his life-time this incident appeared several times in print, and was always substantially as given in this chapter. With the single exception of a series of articles contributed to the Healdsburg Flag by W. C. Graves, two or three years ago, no different account has ever been published. This explanatory digression from the narrative is deemed necessary out of respect to the two gentlemen who conscientiously disagree with Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Lewis. On all other important subjects the survivors are harmonious or reconcilable.
W. C. Graves, now of Calistoga, caught the dying man in his arms, and in a few minutes he was carried a little way up the hill and laid upon the ground. Reed immediately regretted the act and threw the knife from him. His wife and daughters gathered about him and began to stanch the blood that flowed from the gashes on his head. He gently pushed them aside and went to the assistance of the dying man. He and Snyder had always been firm friends, and Snyder had been most active in securing a team for Reed after the latter had lost his cattle in the desert. Snyder expired in about fifteen minutes, and Reed remained by his side until the last. Patrick Breen came up, and Snyder said, "Uncle Patrick, I am dead." It is not certain that he spoke again, though Reed's friends claim that he said to Reed, "I am to blame."
Snyder's death fell like a thunderbolt upon the Donner Party. Camp was immediately pitched, the Reed family being a little removed down the hill from the main body of emigrants. Reed felt that he had only acted in defense of his own life and in defense of the wife he adored. Nevertheless, it was evident that trouble was brewing in the main camp where Snyder's body was lying.
The Reed family were in a sad situation. They commenced the journey with a more costly and complete outfit than the other emigrants, and thereby had incurred the envy of some of their less fortunate companions. They had a fine race horse and good stock, and Virginia had a beautiful pony of her own, and was fond of accompanying her father on his horseback excursions. From these and other circumstances the Reeds had acquired the name of being "aristocratic." Ordinarily, this is a term which would excite a smile, but on this dreadful day it had its weight in inflaming the minds of the excited emigrants. On the desert Reed had cached many valuable articles, but all his provisions had been distributed among his companions. This, however, was forgotten in the turbulent camp, and the destitute, desolate family could plainly catch the sound of voices clamoring for Reed's death.
Meantime, Virginia Reed was dressing the wounds on her father's head. Mrs. Reed was overwhelmed with grief and apprehension, and the father came to Virginia for assistance. This brave little woman was only twelve years old, yet in this and all other acts of which there is a record she displayed a nerve and skillfulness which would have done credit to a mature woman. The cuts in Reed's scalp were wide and deep. Indeed, the scars remained to his dying day. In San Jose, long years afterwards, as James F. Reed lay dead, the gentle breeze from an open window softly lifted and caressed his gray hair, disclosing plainly the scars left by these ugly wounds.
Reed entertained none but the friendliest sentiments toward Snyder.Anxious to do what he could for the dead, he offered the boards of his wagon-bed from which to make a coffin for Snyder. This offer, made with the kindliest, most delicate feeling, was rejected by the emigrants. At the funeral, Reed stood sorrowfully by the grave until the last clod was placed above the man who had been one of his best friends. A council was held by the members of the company. A council to decide upon Reed's fate. It was in the nature of a court, all-powerful, from whose decision there was no appeal. Breathlessly the fond wife and affectionate children awaited the verdict. The father was idolized by the mother and the little ones, and was their only stay and support.
The friendship of the Donner Party for John Snyder, the conflicting and distorted accounts of the tragedy, and the personal enmity of certain members of the company toward Reed, resulted in a decree that he should be banished from the train. The feeling ran so high that at one time the end of a wagon-tongue was propped up with an ox-yoke by some of the emigrants with the intention of hanging Reed thereon, but calmer counsel prevailed.
When the announcement was communicated to Reed that he was to be banished, he refused to comply with the decree. Conscious that he had only obeyed the sacred law of self-defense, he refused to accede to an unjust punishment. Then came the wife's pleadings! Long and earnestly Mrs. Reed reasoned and begged and prayed with her husband. All was of no avail until she urged him to remember the want and destitution in which they and the entire company were already participants. If he remained and escaped violence at the hands of his enemies, he might nevertheless see his children starve before his eyes, and be helpless to aid them. But if he would go forward, if he would reach California, he could return with provisions, and meet them on the mountains at that point on the route where they would be in greatest need. It was a fearful struggle, but finally the mother's counsels prevailed. Prior to setting out upon his gloomy journey, Mr. Reed made the company promise to care for his family.
At the time of the Snyder tragedy, George and Jacob Donner, with their wagons and families, were two days in advance of the main train. Walter Herron was with them, and, when Reed came up, Herron concluded to accompany him to California.
It was contemplated that Reed should go out into the wilderness alone, and with neither food nor ammunition. Happily this part of the programme was thwarted. The faithful Virginia, in company with Milton Elliott, followed Mr. Reed after he had started, and carried him his gun and ammunition. The affectionate girl also managed to carry some crackers to him, although she and all the company were even then on short allowance.
The sad parting between Reed and his family, and the second parting with the devoted Virginia, we pass over in silence. James F. Reed, Jr., only five years old, declared that he would go with his father, and assist him in obtaining food during the long journey. Even the baby, only two and a half years old, would fret and worry every time the family sat down to their meals, lest father should find nothing to eat on his difficult way. Every day the mother and daughters would eagerly search for the letter Mr. Reed was sure to leave in the top of some bush, or in a split stick by the wayside. When he succeeded in killing geese or ducks, as he frequently did along the Humboldt and Truckee, he would scatter the feathers about his camping-ground, that his family might see that he was supplied with food. It is hardly necessary to mention that Mrs. Reed and the children regarded the father's camping-places as hallowed ground, and as often as possible kindled their evening fires in the same spot where his had been kindled.
But a day came when they found no more letters, no further traces of the father. Was he dead? Had the Indians killed him? Had he starved by the way? No one could answer, and the mother's cheek grew paler and her dear eyes grew sadder and more hopeless, until Virginia and Patty both feared that she, too, was going to leave them. Anxious, grief-stricken, filled with the belief that her husband was dead, poor Mrs. Reed was fast dying of a broken heart. But suddenly all her life, and energy, and determination were again aroused into being by a danger that would have crushed a nature less noble. A danger that is the most terrible, horrible, that ever tortured human breast; a danger - that her children, her babes, must starve to death!